The following article contains quotes from interviews with Todd Papy, Design Director at Cloud Imperium Games, Geoffrey Smith, Lead Game Designer at Respawn Entertainment, Paul Haynes, Lead Level Designer at Deep Silver Dambuster Studios and Sten Huebler, Senior Level Designer at The Coalition. A big heartfelt 'thank you' goes out to these guys who took the time out of their busy schedules to answer my questions!
On the MapCore.org forums many amateur level designers ask for feedback on their portfolios or for advice on how to break into the games industry. But once you have signed your first contract and you have your foot in the door you will realize that this step marks merely the beginning of your journey. It is a winding path with many diverging branches and without much information available on the road ahead. This is the reason why I decided to interview professional designers in Senior, Lead or Director positions to share their personal experiences and advice with others trying to navigate this field. It is worth mentioning that the questions were not selected and phrased with the goal in mind to compile a ‘how to get promoted fast’ guide. Instead I wanted to give level designers insights into the careers of others - who have stood at the same crossroads before - in hopes that they get the information to pick the path that is right for them.
Hands-On VS Management
At the beginning of his career, Todd Papy started out as a “designer/environment artist” – a job title that dates back to times when team sizes were much smaller and one person could wear both hats at the same time. As the project complexity and team size grew, he specialized in level design at SONY Santa Monica and worked on the God of War titles. During his time there he moved up the ranks to Lead Level Designer, Design Director and eventually Game Director. From level design to directing a game - a career thanks to careful long-term planning and preparation? “It wasn’t even on my radar” says Todd. “I just wanted to build a game with the team and soak up as much information from the people around me as possible.”
So how do level designers feel who step into positions where the majority of their daily work suddenly consists of managing people and processes? Do they regret not doing enough hands-on-work anymore? Todd says he misses building and crafting something with his hands, but instead of going back to his roots, he decided to look at the issue from a fresh perspective: “As a Lead or Director, your personal daily and weekly satisfaction changes from pride in what you accomplished to pride in what the team has accomplished.“ Today Todd is designing the universe of 'Star Citizen' as Design Director at Cloud Imperium Games.
Geoffrey Smith - who created some of the most popular multiplayer maps in the Call of Duty and Titanfall series and who is now Lead of the ‘Multiplayer Geometry’ team at Respawn Entertainment - says his output of levels remains unchanged thus far, but he can “easily see how being so tied up with managing would cut into someone's hands-on work”. Geoffrey calls for companies to provide the necessary training to employees new to management positions: “Managing people and projects is hard work and is normally a vastly different skill set than most of us in games have. Maybe that is why our industry has such problems with meeting deadlines and shipping bug-free games. A lot of guys work for a long time in their respective disciplines and after many years they get moved into a lead position. They certainly know their craft well enough to teach new guys but managing those guys and scheduling would be something brand new to them. Companies need to understand this and get them the training they need to be successful.” At Respawn Entertainment, the studio provides its department leads with training seminars, which helps the staff immensely, according to Geoffrey.
Sten Huebler, currently working as a Senior Level Designer at Microsoft-owned The Coalition, in Vancouver, says he definitely missed the hands-on work when he worked in a Lead capacity on 'Crysis' and 'Crysis 2': “I was longing for a more direct creative outlet again. That is why coming to The Coalition and working on Gears of War 4, I really wanted to be hands on again.” To Sten it was the right move because he enjoyed working directly on many of the levels in the game’s campaign and could then experience his fruit of labour with others close to him: "After Gears 4 shipped, playing through the campaign, through my levels with my brother in co-op was a blast and a highlight of my career. He actually still lives in Germany. Being able to reconnect with him, on the other side of globe, playing a game together I worked on...So cool!"
'Gears of War 4' developed by The Coaliation and published by Microsoft Studios
Paul Haynes, Lead Level Designer at Deep Silver Dambuster Studios, encourages designers to negotiate the amount of organizational tasks and hands-on work before being promoted into a position that makes you unhappy: “I always told myself that I wouldn’t take a Lead position unless it could be agreed that I retain some hands-on, creative responsibility, after all that’s where I consider my strongest attributes to lie. I agreed to both Lead positions (Cinematic/Level Design) under that principle - I never understood the concept of promoting someone who is good at a certain thing into a position where they potentially don’t get to do that thing anymore, as they spend all their time organising others to do it. So far I’ve managed to maintain that creativity to some degree, though I would imagine it’s never going to be quite the same as it used to be, as I do have a team to manage now. On the flip side though, being able to control and co-ordinate the level design vision for a project and having a team to support in fulfilling that is quite an exciting new experience for me, so not all the organisation and planning is unenjoyable.”
Specialization VS Broadening Skillsets
For the level designers who aren’t afraid of management-related tasks and who are willing to give up hands-on work for bigger creative control, what would the interviewees recommend: specialize and strengthen abilities as an expert in level design further or broaden one’s skillset (e.g. getting into system design, writing etc.)? Paul believes it doesn’t necessarily have to be one or the other: “I think it’s possible to do both (strengthening abilities and broadening skillsets) simultaneously, it would really depend on the individual involved. I would say that a good approach would be to start with the specialisation in your chosen field and then once you feel more comfortable with your day to day work under that specialisation, take on work that utilises different skillsets and experiment to see if you find anything else you enjoy.” He started out as a pure level designer but subsequently held roles that involved game and cinematic design at Codemasters, Crytek and Dambuster Studios. “I’ll always consider myself a level designer at heart”, says Paul, “though it’s been incredibly beneficial for me to gain an understanding of multiple other disciplines, as not only has it widened my personal skillset but it has enabled me to understand what those disciplines have to consider during their day to day job roles, and it has helped me to strengthen the bond with those departments and my level design department as a result.” This advice is echoed by Todd who encourages level designers to learn about the different disciplines as “that knowledge will help solve issues that arise when creating a level.”
'Homefront: The Revolution' developed by Dambuster Studios and published by Deep Silver
Sten also gained experience in related disciplines but ultimately decided to return to his passion and do level design. He explains: “It’s a good question and I feel I have been wondering about this myself regularly in my career. I think those priorities might change depending on your current situation, your age, your family situation, but also depending on the experience you gain in your particular field. (…) In my career, I was fortunate enough to try out different positions. For example, I was a Level Designer on Far Cry (PC), Lead Level Designer on Crysis 1 and Lead Game Designer on Crysis 2. Each position had different requirements and responsibilities. As a Lead Level Designer I was more exposed to the overall campaign planning and narrative for it, while on Crysis 2 I was more involved in the system design. However, my true passion is really on the level design side. I love creating places and spaces, taking the player on a cool adventure in a setting I am crafting. My skills and talents also seem to be best aligned on the level design side. I love the combination of art, design, scripting and storytelling that all come together when making levels for 1st or 3rd person games.”
Picking The Right Studio
As you can certainly tell by now, all of the interviewees have already made stops at different studios throughout their career. So each one of them has been in the situation of contemplating whether to pass on an offer or put down their signature on the dotted line. This brings up the question what makes them choose one development studio over the other? To Geoffrey it depends on what stage of your career you are in. “If you're trying to just get into the industry for the first time, then cast your net wide and apply to a lot of places. However, ideally, someone should pick a studio that makes the types of games they love to play. Being happy and motivated to work every day is a powerful thing.”
This is a sentiment that is shared by all interviewees: the project and team are important aspects, but as they have advanced in their career other external factors have come into play: “It’s not just about me anymore, so the location, the city we are going to live in are equally important.” Sten says.
Paul is also cautious of moving across the globe for a new gig. “The type of games that the company produces and the potential quality of them is obviously quite important – as is the team that I’d be working with and their pedigree. More and more over the years though it’s become equally important to me to find that balance between work and life outside of it. Working on games and translating your hobby into a career is awesome, but it’s all for nothing if you can’t live the life you want around it.”
And it is not just about enjoying your leisure time with family and friends, but it will also reflect in your work according to Todd: “If my family is happy and enjoys where we live, it makes it a lot easier for me to concentrate on work.” He also makes another important point to consider if you are inclined to join a different studio solely based on the current project they are working on: “The culture of the studio is extremely important. I consider how the team and management work together, the vibe when walking around the studio, and the desk where I will sit. Projects will come and go, but the culture of the studio will be something that you deal with every day.”
'Star Citizen' developed and published by Cloud Imperium Games; screenshot by Petri Levälahti
But it goes the other way around, too: When it comes to staffing up a team of level designers, these are the things that Todd looks for in a candidate: “First and foremost, I look for level designers that can take a level through all of the different stages of development: idea generation, 2D layouts, 3D layouts, idea prototyping, scripting, tuning, and final hardening of the level. People that can think quickly about different ideas and their possible positive and negative impacts. They shouldn’t get too married to one idea, but if they feel strongly enough about that specific idea they will fight for it. People that approach problems differently than I do. I want people that think differently to help round out possible weaknesses that the team might have. People who will look for the simplest and clearest solution vs. trying to always add more and more complexity.“
For lead positions, it goes to show yet again how important a designer's professional network is, as Todd for example only considers people that he already knows: “I try to promote designers to leads who are already on the team and have proven themselves. When I am building a new team, I hire people who I have had a personal working relationship before. Hiring people I have never worked with for such positions is simply too risky.”
Ups & Downs
While the career paths of the designers I interviewed seem pretty straightforward in retrospect, it is important to note that their journeys had their ups and downs as well. For instance Geoffrey recalls a very nerve-wracking time during his career when he decided to leave Infinity Ward: “We had worked so hard to make Call of Duty a household name but every day more and more of our friends were leaving. At a certain point it just wasn't the same company because the bulk of the people had left. The choice to leave or stay was even giving me heart palpitations. (…) After I left Infinity Ward, I started working at Respawn Entertainment and by work I mean - sitting in a big circle of chairs with not a stick of other furniture in the office - trying to figure out what to do as a company.” But he also remembers many joyful memories throughout his career: Little things like opening up the map file of multiplayer classic ‘mp_carentan’ for the first time or strangers on the street expressing their love in a game he had worked on. To him, shipping a game is a very joyful experience by itself and the recently released Titanfall 2 takes a special place for him. “The first Titanfall was a great game but we had so many issues going on behind the scenes it felt like we weren't able to make the best game we were capable of. (…) After all the trials and tribulations of starting a new game company, Titanfall 2 is a game I am very proud to have worked on.”
'Titanfall 2' developed by Respawn Entertainment and published by Electronic Arts
As a response to the question of what some of the bigger surprises (good or bad) in his career have been thus far, Paul talks about the unexpected benefits of walking through fire during a project’s development and the lessons he learnt from that: “It surprised me how positively I ended up viewing the outcome of the last project I worked on (Homefront: The Revolution). I’d always thought I would aim to work on big, successful titles only, but I guess you don’t really know what’s going to be a success until it’s released. Obviously it was a disappointing process to be part of, and a lot of hard work and effort went into making it, despite the team always knowing that there were some deep lying flaws in the game that weren’t going to be ironed out. We managed to ride the storm of the Crytek financial issues in 2014, coming out on the other side with a mostly new team in place and yet we carried on regardless and managed to actually ship something at the end of it, which is an achievement in itself. I see the positives in the experience as being the lessons I learnt about what can go wrong in games production which stands me in good stead should I decide to take a more authoritative role somewhere down the line. Sometimes the best way to learn is through failure, and I don’t believe I’d be as well rounded as a developer without having experienced what I did on that project.”
Last Words Of Advice
At the end I asked the veterans if they had any pieces of advice they would like to share with less experienced designers. To finish this article I will quote these in unabbreviated form below:
Geoffrey: “I guess the biggest thing for guys coming from community mapping is figuring out if you want to be an Environment Artist or a Geo-based Designer and if you want to work on Single-Player or Multiplayer. Each has its own skills to learn. I think a lot of guys get into mapping for the visual side of things but some companies have the environment artists handle the bulk of that work. So figuring out if making the level look great is more enjoyable to you or thinking it up and laying it out is, will help determine which career you should follow. Other than that, just work hard and always look to improve!”
Todd: “BUILD, BUILD, BUILD. Have people play it, find out what they liked about it and what they didn’t. Build up a thick skin; people will not always like your ideas or levels. Try out new ideas constantly. What you think looks good on paper doesn’t always translate to 3D. Analyse other games, movies, books, art, etc. Discover what makes an idea or piece of art appeal to you and how you can use that in your craft.”
Paul: “The games industry is not your regular nine to five job, and everyone is different so it’s difficult to lay down precise markers for success. Different specialisations have different requirements and you can find your choices leading to different routes than your fellow team members. You need to make sure you carve your own path and try everything you can to achieve whatever your personal goals are within the role; success will come naturally as a result of that. You need to be honest with yourself and others, open to criticism and willing to accept change. I’ve seen potential in people over the years hindered by stubbornness, succeeding in the games industry is all about learning and constantly adapting. Also it’s important to keep seeing your work as an extension of a hobby, rather than a job. The moment it starts to feel like a means to an end, you need to change things up to get that passion back.”
Sten: “I always feel people should follow their passion. I firmly believe that people will always be the best, the most successful at something they love. Of course, it is a job and it pays your bills, but it’s also going to be something you are going to do for gazillions hours in your life, so better pick something you like doing.”
Written by Friedrich Bode for mapcore.org
What are your personal experiences? Do you agree with the statements made by the interviewees? Any advice you would like to share with fellow level designers or game developers in general? Let us know in the comments!
What is Agency?
Just in case you have never heard of Counter Strike: Global Offensive, it's a hugely popular online FPS, successor to Counter Strike: Source and the original Counter Strike. The original came out in 1999 and the core gameplay has remained almost unchanged. Players are split into two teams and challenge each other in various game modes such as Bomb Defusal (one team has to plant and detonate the bomb while the other tries to stop them) and Hostage Rescue (one team must rescue the hostages whilst the other attempts to prevent that). The Bomb Defusal mode is by far the most popular, with maps designed with such detail that players can predict down to the second when another player is due to arrive in a certain area of the level. It's also the only mode played in competitive events and for huge prize money.
This leaves the poor Hostage Rescue mode sitting on the sidelines twiddling it's thumbs and feeling a little rejected. In part this is because the Hostage Rescue mode is far more of a roleplaying experience, often with very poor odds of success for the team tasked with doing the rescuing. Often the levels are designed in such a way that the defending team has a large positional advantage, where simply staying-put will give them a good chance of winning.
That's where we can start talking about Agency. Agency is a Hostage Rescue level, created as a collaboration between level designer Patrick Murphy, and myself doing the art. The basic idea being that Hostage Rescue could be just as precise and exciting as Bomb Defusal. It's been included in three official releases from the games creator, Valve, as part of their community level packs: Operation Bravo, Operation Phoenix and Operation Bloodhound. Phoenix being a community-voted choice, which was especially great to see that players enjoyed the style of gameplay and visuals that Agency brought with it.
In this article I will go over the process of creating the art, from props to set dressing, texture creation and lighting, while maintaining a visually pleasing aesthetic and serving to enhance the gameplay. This isn't a postmortem but rather a walk-through of the various stages, hopefully to give some ideas to others, with lessons learned both positive and negative.
Iteration from Whitebox to Final
Starting out you should always have an idea of what you're going to create, even if it is quite vague, as it'll point you in the right direction for both creating architectural spaces and letting your imagination fill in the blanks as you build the basic shapes of the level. We knew we were going to build an office space, but style was leaning towards an older government building with red bricks and musty wood. As I started to put in some basic textures we decided it felt too bland, and similar to other levels in the game. In order to stand out and create something really interesting and intriguing that would entice players to want to explore the level we decided to modernize the space and use white as the primary colour - this would help players see each other more easily and provide a striking visual setting it apart from other levels.
"Modern Office" is not exactly a style that has a single look, if you search for images you'll get back a lot of contrasting designs and ideas, trying to put every single one of those into a level would create a visual mess with no consistency. It's important to choose the right references for what you are building, something that looks cool in a single image or from a specific location might not fit into the theme of the level, and in a worst-case-scenario it might actually start to detract from the level as a whole. Trying to cram in as much content as possible simply makes your level feel less unified and jarring.
Unfortunately when you are presented with so many fantastic designs and ideas it can be hard to pick out what is important. After settling on the location: a modern advertising agency's office, I broke down the needs of the level into a few different categories:
The Area Specific content is "hero assets" for each location in the level. These are the things that help the player tell different areas apart from each other, a reception desk, a kitchen, a bathroom, etc. Assets that won't be used anywhere else except in their specific location.
Examples of Area Specific Content
The General Use content is the backbone of the building, it's wall sockets, ventilation tubes, sprinklers, desks and chairs. The things that could be used anywhere and would blend in to the background and not stand out unless you were specifically looking for them.
Examples of General Use Content
The Overall Theme content is what sells the theme of the level to players, advertising boards, company logos, large art installations and so on. These can be used everywhere but sparingly and should only be used as a subtle reminder to the player of where they are thematically. They shouldn't detract from the Area Specific content but should stand out more than the General Use content. This came in the form of abstract paintings, corporate logos, rotating advertisement panels and so on - things that would subtly tie the level together.
Once these categories were laid out, searching through reference images became much simpler as you know what you need and only have to find an interesting design or detail that enhances a specific category.
This isn't to say that everything was completely planned out or that development was flawless. Sticking to a plan only works until you open the editor, and if you try to force something you'll end up frustrated when it consistently fails to work. As an example we originally had the level set on the ground floor of a tall skyscraper. I spent a few weeks working on content for the ground but never really getting it to feel right within the theme of the level: the contrast between a dirty exterior street section and a spotless interior didn't feel right for the level, and felt a little too similar to another Counter Strike level. Patrick played around with some ideas and tried something I was afraid of: simply deleting everything I had done on the outside and adding an epic city vista. Instantly it felt right. The important thing to take away from this is that just because you have worked on something doesn't mean it's the right thing to be working on, and that getting input from other people with different ideas can vastly improve what you are working on.
The first mockup of Agency's rooftop exterior
The same space after an art pass
Another incredibly important thing I realised is making use of modular assets. If you are going to duplicate something in your particular modelling software you should ask yourself: is this efficient? Chances are you're just making things harder to change later and locking yourself into a particular shape; eg: a walkway has a railing around it, you model the entire railing as a single object. Now if you need to change that walkway a month later you're going to have to go back and change your railing model. It's better to create a smaller tiling mesh that can be used multiple times, as often you'll find you can use that model in other areas and in different ways than you had initially intended. You're simply applying the concept of tiling textures to models, and in the process saving yourself a lot of time.
A Believable Clean Art Style
Creating a clean environment can often be more difficult and time consuming than a very dirty and cluttered one, simply because any mistakes are magnified by the lack of other objects to disguise them. A room with a single chair in the middle is going to end up with the focus being on that chair, if you fill that room with a hundred chairs you're going to be less concerned with the details of the chair and more worried about why someone would fill a room with a hundred chairs.
In the modern office setting of Agency it would have made little sense to fill it with props and clutter, but a large empty space would just feel unfinished. A delicate balance of larger architectural shapes and smaller objects was needed. I like to think of this as functional art: it serves a purpose in the lore of the game world. Window and door frames, electrical sockets, thermostats and card swipes along with the maintenance apparatus of ventilation systems. These are the general use objects mentioned earlier, they fill out space and prevent an empty wall or ceiling from actually looking empty and at the same time they contribute to the believability of the level. It's important to think of the infrastructure of the building when placing these assets - if a wall has an air vent on it then the wall needs to be thick enough to support the ventilation pipes that feed it, Card swiping mechanisms need to be placed near doors at the correct height, electrical sockets should be placed logically in areas where they would be of use to the fictional inhabitants of the level and so on.
Several examples of functional art details
One of the most important things to do right when creating clean environments is to get the most out of the materials. It's not possible to cover every surface in dirt or decals, so the surfaces themselves become your way of showing detail.
For Agency this was achieved by making liberal use of the phong shading techniques in the Source engine for models, and cubemaps for world textures. Almost all models in the level have some amount of phong shading, and although it doesn't produce a completely physically accurate result it can be used to create materials and surfaces that look relatively accurate. Simply by increasing or decreasing the intensity of the phong amount allowed for a vast majority of the levels surfaces to be rendered accurately. As I didn't need to have a lot of noisy detail in the materials due to the clean style I simply used a small phong texture as a mask for 75% of the models and let the lighting and general shapes of the models do the rest of the work.
Simple phong shading to mimic real world materials
As most of the surfaces had a single layer of material, ie paint or coloured metal, the phong shading could be completely even without breaking the illusion; however some of the dirtier surfaces such ventilation tubes and water pipes had several layers: a painted metal surface with area peeled away to reveal with metal underneath or a layer of dust. These had specific masks that would enhance the different materials, and showing wear and tear in the background assets added an extra layer of depth without compromising the clean style.
Most of these textures were created with dDo, an excellent tool for quickly creating textures. I generally started with quite a dirty texture preset and toned down the details and noise until they were barely perceptible surface imperfections.
Agency features probably close to 95% custom art, and that's a lot of work for a single person. Using dDo allowed me to make a lot of content relatively quickly, and kept it all visually consistent.
The process of creating the assets with dDo was quite simple: first I modeled the basic ingame asset, then did a very quick and dirty placement of edge loops that allowed me to smooth the mesh and get a workable high poly. A very rough normal map was baked (along with a more solid ambient occlusion map), this rough normal map would never make it into the game, it was used purely for texturing with dDo. This rough-and-dirty technique was mostly used on the more general purpose assets that nobody would spend a lot of time looking at. For the objects that were in high traffic areas or that required finer detail a more robust normal map was created.
Tiling textures used throughout the world were photo-sourced and tiled in Photoshop. A few examples worth pointing out are the plaster wall textures and the marble floors:
The image above shows the ingame result, the diffuse texture, and the normal map of the standard plaster that is used throughout the level. The normal map was authored at 1024x1024 compared to the diffuse texture which was 512x512. I created several colour variations of the diffuse texture and for a very plain surface using a 1024x1024 diffuse didn't make much sense. The final touch was to add a subtle cubemap effect to bring out the normal map and add interesting coloured reflections in various areas.
Another example is a marble floor used throughout the level. The normal map is unrealistic in that it portrays an uneven bumpy surface when in fact it is more likely to be uniformly flat. However to break up the reflections and add some visual interest to such a large and empty area I added a subtle bumpy normal map which warps the reflections, but is subtle enough that it doesn't get picked up by the lighting and actually appear like a lumpy mess.
Good shading only gets you part of the way there, however. A poorly scaled model can break immersion instantly, especially when you are trying to create a believable real-world environment. There are tried-and-true metrics for Counter Strike so having a base to work from helped immensely, but these only give you a good starting point or a bounding box for your object. It's important to study real world reference and make sure your object is proportional to the world around it and also to itself. A unit in Hammer is an inch, so having wood that's 2 units thick, or a doorway that is 1.5m wide quickly makes things look wrong.
Working with Designer Blockouts, and not Destroying Gameplay
Agency was a collaboration, with Patrick doing the design work and me doing the visuals, this meant there was a lot of potential for overlap and working on the same areas, the potential for breaking things was huge.
Often when you create things as an individual you don't have to worry about version control or stepping on someone else's toes, however when you work with other people either for pleasure or business you, as an artist, need to change your mindset. You are not creating a portfolio piece but rather something functional that has to withstand hundreds of hours of real people playing it.
Your first role is to support the designer, and this benefits you as well. By creating the basic structures of the level: doorways, window frames, stairs, railings, cover objects etc, you are allowing them to work with the final assets and tweak gameplay according to those assets. Nothing needs to be finalized instantly, it's better to provide a rough mockup of the intended asset so the designer can play around with it and give feedback on the shape, size and silhouette. Once you are both confident it's going to work they can populate the level with these assets which saves you time in the long run, and once you finalize the model and textures they are going to be updated across the entire level without having to manually replace assets.
It can be difficult to determine exactly when you should start an art pass, especially when a level is constantly evolving. Rather than sitting idly by whilst Patrick was ironing out the design of the level I started on the creation of a few visual test levels to explore materials, lighting and modular assets. Once the first iterations of Agency were created, with rough shapes for important cover and controlling lines-of-sight. I went in and created an art pass and altered many of these original gameplay ideas, simply experimenting with different shapes and designs for the rooms. We had a constant dialogue and never considered something finalized just because it was finished. Playtests would determine whether an idea was valid or not in a way that speculation can only hope for. The most important lesson learned during this process of constant iteration was that work is very rarely wasted, and it is far more important to stay true to a gameplay ideal than to have an area that looks interesting in a screenshot but utterly fails when players get their hands on it. A box is a box is a box, it is down to you as an artist to imagine how that box can be interpreted within the context of the environment.
Initial art pass ideas for the central area (above) versus the end result (below)
Initial art pass ideas for the reception (above) versus the end result (below)
Initial art pass ideas for a hostage (above) versus the end result (below)
An important part of any environment is the lighting. Too contrasted and moody and it becomes hard to identify players, too bright and monotone and it becomes boring and a strain on the eyes. For Agency I used a series of instanced lighting setups: a model to visualise the light source, a spot light to direct the light, and a sprite or light cone to add a visual effect around the light. Each light setup was unique to the type of model used for the actual light source, ie: all spotlights were identical, all fluorescent lights were identical etc. This meant I could change a single light and have the others update automatically, and always get an accurate result.
Then it was just a case of placing these different types of lights where they logically made sense in the environment, and if an area was too dark an appropriate light source was added, and if an area was too bright lights could be moved around or removed entirely. This made it quite easy to light as everything was guided by reality, which has plenty of reference material, and had the side effect of helping to make the environment more believable. By using various colours on the floor and walls I could direct lights towards them and take advantage of the Source engine's excellent radiosity and spread interesting colours to nearby surfaces.
In many areas the ceiling was opened up to reveal the sky and to let natural sunlight into the interior spaces, this was done to provide contrast to the electrical lights and to get extra radiosity bounces into the environment. Some areas had lights removed or toned down to allow other more important gameplay areas to stand out, for example the image below shows how the corridor here was darkened both by using darker textures and by using restrained lighting to make the room in the distance appear brighter as this is an area that enemy players will appear from.
This could have been taken even further by possibly using emergency exit signs to add hints of colour to important gameplay areas and chokepoints. A consistent lighting language would have helped guide players during the first few times playing the level. There are some large open spaces that would have benefited from some coloured screens or lighting panels, or possibly making some of the larger glass surfaces tinted, to add a little extra colour and prevent such a monotone look whilst not being over-bearing or detracting from the realistic style of lighting I was aiming for.
During the course of developing Agency I had a chance to learn a few things and come out the other end a, hopefully, better artist.
So, what went well?
The iteration process never had any hiccups, by using modular content and being prepared to discard ideas and art styles that weren't working we ended up with a better level. If we had tried to force the original idea of a ground-level government office we would have ended up with a completely different level, complete with underground parking lots and elevator shafts. Exciting stuff!
The power of iteration cannot be understated, and understanding that a mockup or a blockout of a level is simply a temporary phase that doesn't represent the end result. Areas changed drastically between versions, sometimes due to design requirements, and sometimes of shifts in art style; but each version was better than the last, more refined and polished.
What went less well?
In direct contrast to the statement above, sometimes the iteration interfered with more important tasks. I got stuck on areas trying to get them to work instead of letting them sit for a while and returning to them later. I tried to force an idea for the exterior part of the level and it never felt right and consumed way too much time, when all it took was getting some outside perspective. Luckily during the process I learnt to trust designers when it comes to art, just because they might not build high poly meshes doesn't mean they aren't artistic.
Another problem was building too much content completely unique for an area which meant when we inevitably changed things it became time consuming to shift assets around, and makes it less easy for others to re-use that content without creating an almost replica of the area it was designed for. These unique assets helped sell the realism of the level but made them harder to work with.
Hopefully this has been interesting and insightful!